Glorious ambition

Aston Martin’s Project cars were intended to return  the company to the forefront of GT racing. We drove a recreation of 214 at its spiritual home, Goodwood

By Andrew Frankel

Sometimes things just don’t turn out as they should. If you had been in the grandstands at Le Mans one lap into the 24-hour race of 1962, you’d have had every reason to believe you were witnessing the birth of a new and glorious era for British sports car racing in general and one of its most revered marques in particular. For out of the chicane, past the pits and into the curve that led to the bridge came Graham Hill’s Aston Martin with the rest of the field – Ferraris, Maseratis, Porsches, the lot – nowhere.

It was not to be. Although there was one shaft of light at the end of the dark tunnel that is the story of the Aston Martin Project cars, the general thrust of this tale is that which seems so often to define the British approach to sporting endeavour, one that ends with that all too familiar ache for what might have been and even what should have been, rather than what actually was.

Hill was driving Aston Martin DP212, a nomenclature that followed standard Design Project prototype naming policy at Aston Martin. Known alternatively as Project 212, the car was an experimental toe-dip back into the murky waters of racing abandoned after the world sports car championship and Le Mans win three years earlier and prompted by the knowledge that racing at the weekend helps you sell in the week. 

John Wyer, coming to the end of a 13-year stint at Aston Martin, said in Chris Nixon’s Racing With the David Brown Aston Martins: “We built the Project cars under pressure from our dealers, particularly our man in France. He was very anxious for us to go back to Le Mans and many other dealers around the world felt that a successful racing programme – even a limited one – would make it much easier to sell Aston Martins.”

Project 212 was, in essence, a heavily modified DB4GT, fitted with a de Dion rear axle and, as the regs permitted, an engine bored out to four litres. But for all its power (quoted outputs vary between 310 and 345bhp), even the skill of Hill and co-driver Richie Ginther could not hold the lead at Le Mans for long. Something was far from right with the aerodynamics, causing significant rear end lift on the Mulsanne straight; and while it held onto second place for some time, a cracked oil pipe put it out for good with three-quarters of the race still to run.

But it had done enough, just, to suggest that there might be a way to take the fight to Ferrari’s 250GTOs, which had become the dominant force in GT racing. For 1963, three more Project cars were built, two DP214s to run in the production class and a single DP215 prototype. Although all three possessed broadly similar bodywork, these later cars presented a more concerted effort to catapult Aston Martin back to the forefront of long-distance racing. The 214s and 215 had lighter box-section chassis as well as longer and lower bodywork with kicked up, abbreviated tails to keep air from tumbling under the back of the car. They were forced to abandon the 212’s de Dion rear end for the 214s because of the GT class regulations, while the 215 boasted a dry-sump engine and a DBR1-based transaxle that was great in theory but, in the end, was to prove its undoing.

They duly appeared at Le Mans for 1963 with Wyer at least sure “that all three cars were perfectly capable of winning the race”. The cars went well in practice, becoming the first to be timed at over 300kph on the Mulsanne but, once more, race day would not work out as planned. Both 214s had been fitted with cast rather than forged pistons. Bruce McLaren, sharing with Innes Ireland, led the GT class until piston failure at 60 laps while the second car, driven by Jo Schlesser and William Kimberley, worked its way up to third overall before its pistons wilted, 10 hours in. The 215, for which so much had been hoped, didn’t even make the third hour before the transaxle failed, despite the skilled and sensitive hands of Phil Hill and Lucien Bianchi at the wheel.

Schlesser tried again with 215 at Reims, but the transaxle meant he kept missing gears and eventually bent the valves. Things looked briefly better when Innes Ireland put a 214 on pole for the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood but, as he put it: “I thought I had the race in the bag, but the bloody scrutineers made us run on narrow rims which destroyed the Aston’s handling.” The pictures of Innes in various comically lurid drifts and slides suggest he might be right. At least the 215 finished this race, coming seventh after one too many spins.

And then came Monza, or more precisely the Coppa Inter-Europa three-hour race before the Italian Grand Prix. Both 214s lined up against no fewer than eight 250GTOs and a brace of E-types. Wyer was leaving Aston Martin at the end of the season and it was the last chance for the Project cars to do what they’d promised and beat the Ferraris. And, at last, one of them did.

Bianchi came home an almost unnoticed third because of the battle at the front between Mike Parkes’ GTO and the lead 214, driven by Roy Salvadori, whose wonderfully varied career is celebrated at this year’s Goodwood Revival. Despite racing Ferraris, Lolas, Coopers, Astons and Connaughts at grand prix level and winning Le Mans in 1959, this is the race he claims as his greatest. For the entire second half after the mid-point pitstops, Parkes, a Monza specialist, and Salvadori were locked in such a titanic struggle that, according to Roy: “For lap after lap just tenths of a second separated us and the excited Italian crowd must have thought we were taking it in turns to lead past the pits.” Salvadori also had the crowd on his side, it having been erroneously announced that he was Italian.

The Ferrari had better acceleration, the Aston a higher top speed, so Parkes would overtake out of the slower corners, only for Salvadori to come past on the straights. It took a back-marker to break Parkes’ tow and resolve the race in Aston’s favour. But that was it. Wyer left and the cars were sold. The project was over.

Forty-something years later, I’m being strapped into a Project 214 in the Goodwood pit lane. Yet it is neither of the cars that raced in period but, instead, a painstaking recreation of the original that allows its owner Wolfgang Friedrichs to race it hard without fear of damaging irreplaceable history. He does this so that Project 212, which he also owns, is preserved for really important events such as the Goodwood TT and Le Mans.

Unlike some cars that come to Motor Sport for track testing, this 214 is not a museum piece, but a hard-edged, highly developed racer that’s been on the podium for the last three Spa 6-Hours races, winning outright in 2005. It’s perhaps a little quicker than the original but only because modern technology has liberated more reliable power from its twin-cam, straight-six motor – about 380bhp, according to Friedrichs. But while the cockpit of, say, a racing DB4GT Zagato is clearly related to that of the road car, the environment of the 214 is purely for competition purposes.

The engine fires at once with that familiar Aston bark and, at noise-restricted Goodwood at least, it’s quieter than you’d think. You’d expect an achingly heavy clutch, but the throttle is hefty, too. What’s more, the steering wheel is some distance away, forcing me to drive with my arms near straight. I suspect this test is going to become quite physical.

After one lap to learn how it all works, I squirt it out of the chicane in third and am at once impressed not just by the sheer power, but its accessibility. There appears to be fat wads of torque everywhere and while the engine is apparently entirely safe to 7000rpm, there seems no point at all straying beyond 6000rpm. With an all-up weight of about a tonne, acceleration is of the relentless variety. It pulls 6000rpm in top down the back straight at Goodwood with space to spare on gearing tailored to give a top speed in excess of 160mph. Predictably, the noise is magnificent.

Given the age of its design and the location of its engine, you’d not expect it to sniff out apexes like a bloodhound chasing a scent, but it flicks into corners like something altogether lighter and younger. It’s not dainty but as David Clark, who shares the car with Friedrichs, says: “It’s a car without any vices. You can just get in and go hard.”

He’s right. You have to be smooth with it, particularly when braking in something other than a straight line, and become acclimatised to the heavy controls, but once you do you can break the back loose with confidence and drive it on the throttle as its maker intended. The stiff throttle makes heel and toe downchanges – which are essential to avoid locking the back axle – more difficult than they should be but otherwise it feels sufficiently reassuring to encourage a modest level of commitment through the corners, even after only six or seven laps of Goodwood.

Whether the original 214s were like that or whether Colin Blower Motorsport has further refined the handling characteristics is another matter. Michael Salmon has probably spent more time racing Project Aston Martins than anyone else alive and ran both 214s in 1964 after they’d been sold by the works, before becoming a serial winner of historic races in Project 212 in the ’70s. “I always reckoned the 214s were slightly quicker than 212, but trickier to drive, particularly when it was wet when the de Dion axle gave 212 a distinct advantage,” he says. 

In a 214 at the International Trophy at a soaking Silverstone in 1964, Salmon broke the GT lap record in practice in one of the 214s, headed the field through Copse, lost it at vast speed at Maggots and “led the field, travelling backwards, all the way to Becketts”. He rejoined in 27th yet finished second, only six seconds shy of Graham Hill’s 1964-spec Maranello GTO. 

Tragedy then struck when Salmon and Brian Hetreed took the 214s to the Nürburgring for the 1000Km race at the end of May. There was a thunderstorm in practice, Hetreed lost control and, as was too frequently the case at that track, it cost him his life. 

That accident halved the 214 population. While it has been suggested elsewhere that parts of the car were salvaged and even that the wreck was rebuilt, Salmon’s is just one of several authoritative voices that maintains the car was destroyed, and he should know. Certainly Clark and Friedrichs are particular about making no claim to the historical identity of that 214.

The surviving 214, the Coppa Inter-Europa winner, now resides in Simon Draper’s collection, while 215 is in the hands of Genesis manager and historic racing stalwart Tony Smith. As mentioned previously, 212 is in Friedrichs’ care and still raced to this day.

It’s very easy to knock the Aston Project cars. Call it another example of the too-little-too-late approach peculiar to a surprising number of Aston-badged endeavours over the years and you could be thought more cruel than unfair. Yes, had the 214s’ pistons been forged rather than cast, they might have won Le Mans or at least their class. But they weren’t and they didn’t. In racing you cannot live in the what-if world.

Even so, I think we can now afford to think more kindly of these cars that have been adding a dash of colour, a sense of occasion and no small measure of speed and beauty to grids for more than 40 years. Fact is, on the only occasion when one did not succumb to mechanical malady or sheer bad luck, it beat the finest GT car of its era on its own turf. It was not just John Wyer’s last race at Aston Martin but would prove to be the last by a true works Aston for more than 25 years. It must have meant a lot, not least that the Project cars could go out as they had come in: leading from the front.